|Mediterranean Garden Society|
The UK Branch of the MGS
Oakeley, former consultant psychiatrist at St Thomas’ Hospital and a president of the Orchid Society of Great Britain, was funny, opinionated and learned. Herbal medicine, for instance, is cheerfully dismissed as “a belief system, not sound – in fact rubbish!” Surveying the garden he continues, “All plants are poisonous – apart perhaps from those in supermarkets”. His serious point is that although some plants contain compounds that are the basis for modern medicines (such as yew trees providing taxol, which stops cell division, or the Madagascar periwinkle, which provides a chemical for use in treating childhood leukaemia), almost anything taken in excess becomes a poison. Few species provide properties that are medically effective without the intervention of science. And only around a fifth of today’s medicines have any connection with chemicals found in plants.
However, the point of this garden is to show the marvellous variety of plants that have been associated with medicines and medical figures down the ages, effective or not. They have been and sometimes still are used as cures or named after scientists and physicians. One example: the stunning deep pink Paeonia officinalis. Oakeley explained: “It commemorates Paian, physician to the gods of ancient Greece on Mt Olympus (see Homer’s Iliad v. 401 and 899, circa 800 BC). The roots, hung round the neck, were regarded as a cure for epilepsy for nearly 2000 years, a belief which was incomprehensible until I found, in Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal (1737), that it was used for febrile fits in children, associated with teething. But,” he reminded us, “we all know that teething comes to an end, whatever one does”.
The beds, stocked with some 1300 species, are themed: North American, World Medicine, Arid Zone, European & Mediterranean, Far Eastern, Southern Hemisphere. Dominating the garden is a magnificent oriental plane (Platanus orientalis var. insularis), propagated from the one on the island of Cos under which Hippocrates is said to have taught his medical students.
There is also a small olive tree (Olea europaea), presented to the RCP by the Society of Apothecaries “to symbolize the harmony between them and the College”. A young mulberry (Morus nigra ‘King James’), a scion of a tree in the Chelsea Physic Garden that had been planted there in 1611, was planted in 2011 to commemorate the 400 years of the King James Bible. It is surrounded by Cyclamen neapolitanum, once claimed to cure any number of ailments, from cataract to chilblains to ulcers. Gerard in his Herbal reported, “it is reputed to be a good amorous medicine to make one love, if it be inwardly taken”.
We started our tour in the North American bed. It is not at its best in August, compared with the other RCP plots, but Oakeley offered us plenty to ponder, for example, Dahlia merckii from Mexico, with small purple flowers. “This dahlia represents a future of medicine – it is a herbal forerunner of further advances in medicine based on our increasing genetic understanding,” he declared, explaining that it contains a key anti-fungal gene that has been successfully transplanted into aubergines, so inducing resistance to mildew.
We studied Podophyllum peltatum, used in the treatment of venereal warts and to make the anti-cancer drug Etoposide. Then there was Echinacea purpurea, used in herbal medicine, (Asclepias incarnata) named for Asklepios, the Greek god of Medicine, beloved of monarch butterflies but poisonous to the rest of us, and Lobelia siphilitica, said to cure the pox, ‘but it does no such thing’, Oakeley insisted.
We moved to the World Medicine bed in dry shade to admire Vinca major containing vincamine and reserpine once used to reduce blood pressure. We noted the mottled leaves of Pulmonaria officinalis,once believed under the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ (the ancient superstitious idea that herbs resembling parts of the human body will cure those parts) to be useful in curing lung disorders because of their resemblance to the human lung. Then there is Abelia x grandiflora, the modest but pretty white-flowered shrub thriving in dry shade and named after the physician Dr Clarke Abel (1780-1826), who was one of the first European plant hunters in China while working in the Peking embassy.
Of particular interest are the European & Mediterranean beds. Oakeley pointed to Digitalis lanata from which the heart medicine digoxin was once extracted. “Bees get stoned on this,” he says merrily. There’s the aptly named deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) with its shiny black poisonous berries. It was used historically in various strengths to treat conditions from headache to motion sickness, as a recreational drug, and particularly to poison arrow tips in war; forms of its components are used in some modern medicines. Daisies (Bellis perennis) abound – prized for their astringent properties, along with many lavenders, aromatic artemisias and toadflax (Linaria vulgaris), frequently dismissed as a weed but used in folk medicine and as an insecticide. We admired the tall variegated grass Arundo donax, the source of local anaesthetics such as lidocaine. There are alliums, salvias, santolinas and more. In the past many furry-leaved plants were used to ‘heal’ wounds, much as we might use cotton wool.
Owning a tiny London garden and needing a modest hedge, I was particularly fascinated by one small solution: dwarf pomegranate (the RCP planted just two garden centre specimens which have expanded happily via suckers), interspersed with an ancient apple cultivar, Malus domestica ‘Court Pendu Plat’, grown as an espalier in one of the small gardens of plants used in the RCP’s Pharmacopoeia of 1618, overflowing on to St Andrews Place. The pomegranate (Punica granatum var. nana), with its many legendary health-giving properties has been much used in Ayurvedic medicine as well as in delicious culinary recipes (especially Greek).
The RCP has had a medicinal garden since 1965, when it was established with just 12 plants. It was extensively replanned and replanted by Mark Griffiths in 2005-2006, thanks to generous sponsorship from the Wolfson Foundation and others. Griffiths is Editor of the New RHS Dictionary of Gardening and has a long-standing interest in medicinal plants. Over eighteen months he and his partner Yoko Otsuki commuted from Oxford and worked in the garden, clearing the site, sourcing and planting many hundreds of plants and establishing their maintenance. Since then Jane Knowles, the head gardener, has more than doubled the number of plants being grown.
The RCP is the only institutional garden in England devoted solely to medicinal plants. It was also almost Britain’s oldest botanical garden. In 1586 the College recruited the great Elizabethan herbalist John Gerard to create and curate a garden for them. It seems, however, that the College was ultimately unprepared to pay for the land required, and so Gerard merely grew medicinal plants for them at his home in Holborn. Anyone is free to wander here and in the museum, with its portraits, a stunning collection of English delftware apothecary jars, silverware, and a huge collection of medical instruments that make one thankful for modern medicine.
Harold Peto’s garden at Iford Manor, near Bradford-on-Avon
John kindly showed us around the garden which was owned and designed by the Edwardian landscape designer Harold Peto, a contemporary of Edward Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll.
Harold Peto, born in 1854, was apprenticed to Ernest George, an architect who hired him as a junior partner. Harold travelled extensively in Italy, France, North Africa and Spain during the 1880s and 1890s collecting architectural pieces on his travels, and decided, on a visit to Iford Manor with his lifelong friend Avray Tipping, that it would fulfil his dreams. He designed the garden to simulate but not copy Italian gardens and was very open to ideas.
He realised the need to get out of the sun, to create vistas and to have more than one view in a situation, always to feel safe but to look outwards. He ‘was a Kodak man before cameras’ and designed to ‘top the frame of the picture’ by using pergolas, trees or climbers. Although familiar with the Arts and Crafts movement, he was not part of it. His preference was for structure, but he successfully combined this with natural planting in the manner of William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll.
As one enters the garden one encounters a wonderful Wisteria sinensis hedge. Beyond is the loggia exactly proportioned with Ionic columns. Rugosa roses, phlomis, campanulas, Cardiocrinum lilies and irises frame the view. A fountain-head spills water into a pond - Peto believed that the sound of water was as essential in a garden as bird song. Terraces lead up to the orangery, originally a cow shed.
The design of the garden encourages you to walk slowly, to pick up the detail of original sculpture, beautifully planted pots and intriguing vistas. As one passes through a part of the garden with oriental sculptures one sees a spectacularly large Cercidiphyllum tree, Acer palmatum and what was the deer park beyond. This leads to a magnificent lateral terrace designed with the Appian Way in mind and ornately decorated Roman sarcophagi on either side. The cleverly horizontal lined grooves in the gravel give an illusion of length.
An amusing pair of stone dogs on pillars, millstones set in the paving and benches placed so that one can sit and enjoy the view add to the admirable design. Peto culminated his structural work at Iford Manor by building a beautiful cloister – his ‘Haunt of Ancient Peace’ – where he displayed many of his treasures and which now is the venue for intimate musical events in the summer. The planting with topiaried hedges of Teucrium, rosemary and Phillyrea is simple but effective, echoing the classic Mediterranean style.
Another area of the garden designed by Elizabeth Cartwright-Hignett includes a shell and pebble grotto, an amusing topiaried sofa and chair, a wildflower meadow with indigenous plants including martagon lilies, a grotto and a topiaried, pebbled parterre. Beyond is the Belvedere, where the ladies used to watch the hunt and falconry on the other side of the valley. This leads on to the garden shed complete with a carved wooden gnome installed by Harold Peto.
Truly inspiring, harmonious and beautiful gardens.
Ridleys Cheer, near Chippenham
The shrub roses R. ‘Gloire Lyonnaise’, R. ‘Mrs Oakley Fisher’, R. ‘Bengal Beauty’, R. ‘Jacqueline Dupré’ and R. ‘Sally Holmes’, grow in the mixed borders with thalictrums, delphiniums, irises etc. R. ‘Graham Thomas’ and R. longicuspis entwine together along a flint wall, and Lonicera periclymenum ‘Serotina’ frames the borders as standards and climbs the fence leading to the arboretum.
There are 38 different types of oaks, cut-leafed beeches and a cut-leafed walnut tree, and magnolias. Metasequoia, Tilia and Liriodendron trees are some of the many different species in the arboretum.
Deutzias, Philadelphus, Hoheria, Cotinus and 25 different types of Daphne are some of the shrubs to be seen. A perennial meadow was created in 1996, and an impressive Salix rosmarinifolia surrounds the vegetable garden.
This garden is remarkable for its huge variety of outstanding plants and trees and gardening methods, and can be summed up with the meaningful saying ‘Right plant, right place’.
Text by Caroline Donnelly.
May and June 2011
The talks covered species of orchids found in the UK and more particularly in Kent, their life cycles, pollination and habitat requirements, and which ones we should expect to see, but we were warned that some species had bloomed early due to unexpectedly warm conditions and were now over. However, we were fortunate, as Fred and David had done some preliminary scouting and knew where to find those which were still in flower. A piece of information which was new to some of us was that Kent has some of the areas richest in orchid species in the whole of the country.
On the first day some 12 species were identified including the bird’s-nest orchid (Neottia nidus-avis) and great butterfly orchid (Platanthera chlorantha). In June we first visited a reserve on the Wye Downs, no orchids but other wild flowers and splendid views, then on to Yockletts Bank, an area of woodland where we saw white helleborine (Cephalanthera damasonium) and common twayblade (Listera ovata); it was in the Park Gate Down Reserve, situated on old chalk pastureland, that we saw the greatest number and variety of orchids – many of both the pink and white pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis) and, the highlight, the rare monkey orchid (Orchis simia).
A cause of concern in this reserve is the encroaching bracken – leaving it to continue its progress will severely damage the reserve, but the problem is: should a natural area be managed at all and, if so, how much or little?
The area of Kent just east of Wye is not well known but it is delightful with its chalk downs, narrow valleys and winding lanes. Both days were excellent, much enhanced by our knowledgeable guides, without whom we would never have spotted the number of orchids that we did. Many thanks to Allan Lover who co-ordinated and performed the introductions.
Very varied days of garden visits and wild flower walks were in store for our stay in the part of Catalonia which lies between Girona and the sea. We were immersed in plants within an hour of arrival at Barcelona airport as we went straight to the city's new Botanic Gardens on Montjuïc, overlooking the city and sea, to be shown round by the enthusiastic taxonomist, Samuel Pyke. We were well looked after by him and local members David Glen and Brian Constable on our arrival.
From there it was an hour and a half's drive to our hotel on a headland at the north end of Platja d’Aro.
Leisurely walks in woods in the hills above the town where we stayed filled the next day. Wild flower photographer Christopher Witty, whose family has lived in Catalonia for 150 years, and his daughter Tina guided us. We ended the day with an evening meeting of our group with members of the local Catalonia branch. About 50 of us crammed ourselves in to the hotel's only meeting room for a talk by John Fielding on Mediterranean flora illustrated with his images from MGS visits to Crete, Israel, Turkey, northern Greece and Rhodes. The dinner that followed, on a bright terrace overlooking the sea, was an enjoyable opportunity to catch up with old friends such as Pat and Val Mills and to meet several other local members.
The following day our programme was full, starting at the coastal 17-acre gardens of Cap Roig near Palafrugell. From there we went on to be shown three charming village gardens in Fontclara by their designer, Maria Jover Sagalés, who was born and brought up in the area and works in a landscape partnership in Barcelona.
In the afternoon we continued to Mas Floris, whose gardens were designed by the contemporary Spanish designer Fernando Caruncho and where, to our great surprise, all 32 of us were taken round the estate in a fleet of golf buggies by the son of the owner.
The next morning we drove north in our huge coach to visit the garden and also the house with its beautiful courtyards of a passionate gardener, plantsman and rose specialist, Anne Neuve-Eglise. In the afternoon we were given a tour of the wholesale nursery Bioriza’s water-wise demonstration garden.
There was another jam-packed day towards the end of our tour when we set off early to the Botanic Garden of Marimurtra in Blanes, continued to Pinya de Rosa, then on to Santa Clotilde. Marimurtra captured many hearts, with its south-east-facing aspect, stunning views and interesting plants from all over the world. The garden was founded in the 1920s by a German businessman and amateur scientist, Carl Faust. After a morning there and lunch in the sailing club, we continued on to Pinya de Rosa, just up the coast, which has a huge variety of cacti, agaves, aloes and opuntias. Finally to Santa Clotilde, notable for its serenity, statues, interesting stairways and lack of bright colour.
The last full day was wonderfully peaceful and a chance for everyone to recharge their batteries on a private estate inland. Crispin (son of Hugo) and Shaunagh Latymer invited us to their beautiful and idyllically peaceful garden at Torre Ronsat in the hills of the Gavarres massif, near La Bisbal d’Empordà. After time in the garden, refreshments and a visit to Crispin’s brother’s house nearby, half the group took picnics and walked with Crispin through fields and woods, finding wild flowers and visiting ancient ice houses, while others ate at the house and relaxed by the pool.
The variety of our lunches was a subject of amusement and comment. One was in a restaurant run by two Belgians in an old village in the woods, where the food is arguably as good as anywhere in Catalonia. Another day we found ourselves in a lorry-drivers' café eating such dishes as small quail, a typically Catalan casseroled pig's cheek and local sausage. It was a happy week.
Other tour highlights included Villa San Michele on Capri, the late 19th-century house and garden creation of Axel Munthe - the fashionable Swedish physician, collector of antiquities and art, benefactor and nature-lover – on the remains of a Roman imperial villa, with commanding views over the Bay of Naples. Munthe’s spirit lives on in the house with its many fascinating artefacts, and the garden today is tranquil and cool.
In Ravello we visited the gardens of the historic Villa Rufolo which boasts an outstanding Ginkgo biloba, prodigious and colourful bedding planting, and much-photographed umbrella pines. The villa, which dates from the 13th century, is now a stunning setting for the Ravello Music Festival with a stage projecting out towards the sea. Memorable visitors who found inspiration here include Boccaccio, Wagner, D.H. Lawrence, Jacqueline Kennedy, and of course now the UK Branch of the MGS.
Almost next door, the equally famous Villa Cimbrone has a huge Phoenix canariensis, many wild orchid species, cyclamen, a rose terrace, a dramatic long avenue of wisteria and Judas trees that inspired Wagner, as well as much statuary - all set in six magnificent hectares with another heart-stopping view of the coast. Distinguished English designers including Harold Peto, Edward Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, left their mark here. Vita Sackville West also visited frequently and directed the planting.
A superb home-cooked lunch followed, higher up the mountainside at 450 metres, with a tour of a highly personal 'secret garden of the soul'in Campinola di Tramonti: narrow, steep, organic, water-wise and – unusually for the region - full of autumnal flowers including dahlias: how English it seemed, and how rare to find such a profusion of flowers in this region in October. We soaked up the atmosphere, and admired the rich variety – citrus, malus, autumn-flowering bulbs and asters. A special touch: our hostess gave each of us one of her lavender bags as we said goodbye. This seemed a garden lost in time, now lovingly being restored. Did anyone get the recipe for the exceptional home-made ice cream?
Next morning from our base in Sorrento five of us were lucky enough to make an early visit to MGS member Valerie Capraro’s choice hanging garden on Positano's steep slopes. This gem is packed with exotic and local plants, a real plant lover’s paradise.
The main part of that day was devoted to the historic sub-tropical and wonderfully green private garden of Villa Tritone, guided by owner Rita Pane. In 1880 Ambassador William Waldorf Astor built the current house on an ancient site overlooking the Bay of Sorrento, facing Naples and Vesuvius. Today the extensive garden has magnificent palms, oriental gardenias, orchids, mosses, ferns and succulents as well as ancient statuary tucked away in secret corners. We enjoyed a delicious lunch on the terrace above a 100ft drop to the Mediterranean with its buried Roman remains below.
From there we moved on to one of Sorrento's public squares with rare tree species and varieties, and enjoyed sunset refreshments in the extensive grounds of landmark Hotel Cocumella on the opposite side of the Bay.
For many the highlight of a trip of highlights was a long visit to the late Susana Walton's world-famous garden created with Russell Page, La Mortella (the name means myrtle), situated in a volcanic gorge on the island of Ischia. Ranging from the tropical Valley Garden at the bottom to the Mediterranean Hill Garden at the top, this garden is packed with over 3000 interesting, often rare, plants gathered over half a century, particularly from Lady Walton's native Argentina. It is impossible to give any idea of the many species in this brief account – just two must suffice: Chorisia speciosa, with its spiny trunk, grown from a seed planted by Lady Walton in 1983, towers in the valley, while two specimens of Spathodea campanulata, an African tree with red flowers, climb up behind a bar towards the top. Not only is La Mortella is not only an outstanding achievement by Lady Walton, but following her death earlier in 2010 her work continues and the garden goes from strength to strength – including summer concerts in the new amphitheatre, her last big achievement. We were indeed fortunate to be taken round by the garden's Director, Alessandra Vinciguerra.
Garden owners and directors acted as our botanical guides throughout the tours, and Rossana Porta from RBG Kew Gardens was with us throughout the whole trip. En route for home, there was time for to spend a couple of hours wandering among the ruins of Roman Herculaneum at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. All in all, this was an unforgettable and beautifully organised Amalfi horticultural experience, thanks in great part to Heather Martin's planning and guidance.
The group moved on to Bates Green Farm for lunch, after which some returned to Marchant’s for a propagation workshop (see report below) while the rest were shown round by the owner Carolyn McCutchan, who has developed the garden over the past 38 years. It is today a garden full of interest, divided into sections such as a shade garden, an area inspired by the sunk garden at Great Dixter, a vegetable garden, a woodland garden, and so on. Although these were English gardens, with the changing patterns in climate there is still much that can be learned from them by those of us with an interest in gardens with a Mediterranean climate.
Watching Graham handle plants is like watching a fishmonger fillet a plaice – a few quick movements and it’s done. But it takes years of practice to achieve that fluency. Meanwhile he had lots of practical advice: always use the same sized pots, then when you water you will water them all equally; when you have firmed the compost ready for sowing, tamp it down with the bottom of another pot to get an even surface, so the seeds don’t roll into the depressions; and, after sowing, top the pot with a layer of grit as a mulch
Most of us thought we knew how to water pots using a rose on the watering can but we were wrong. You don’t just pour it on, you pour to the side of the pot, get the water flowing, then swing the stream slowly over the pot and away again. Only then do you stop the flow. That way you avoid the sudden gush of water that will wash seeds and mulch down the side of the pot.
Finally Graham took a root cutting. With a large plant you can leave it in situ and burrow in from the side to find a suitable root, but with a small plant it’s easier to take the whole plant out, free it from its soil and cut off the youngest, plumpest, palest roots as close as possible to the crown. Then cut away the tail of the root, leaving at least one and a half inches of root to plant. You must be able to tell which end of the cut root goes upwards. Graham always makes his top cut horizontal and his bottom cut slanting, so he never gets it wrong. The cutting goes in the compost with its top level with the top of the soil, before being covered with a layer of grit. He might put as many as 20 in a small pot and pot them on when they start to grow.
Photographs by Jorun Tharaldsen, Davina Michaelides and Colin Cross
Biella and Lake Maggiore
Photographs by Dick Martin
September 2005 visits